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NHL Western Conference finals preview: Chicago-LA going distance

By Brian Stubits | CBSSports.com

Chicago won two of three against LA in the regular season. (USATSI)
Chicago won two of three against LA in the regular season. (USATSI)

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Chicago vs. Los Angeles. The Presidents' Trophy champs vs. the reigning Stanley Cup champs. Arguably the two best teams in the Western Conference during the season. Yes sir, this should be pretty good.

Los Angeles is not playing like the same team that won the Stanley Cup last year. That team was steamrolling foes, scoring plenty while Jonathan Quick was being Jonathan Quick and shutting everybody down. The Kings were simply buzzing. While they have made it this far, they are nowhere near the efficient machine they were last year. Coach Darryl Sutter knows that, admitting in the last series that they're playing about half as well as they did a year ago. Yet they're still alive.

Part of the problem has been LA's massive split between home and road. One of the most amazing things about the Kings' run to the Cup last year was how they were perfect on the road until Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final in New Jersey. That was the only game they lost away from LA all postseason. This year they have just one win away from home, a victory in St. Louis in the first round.

Their home-ice advantage against San Jose was clearly a massive reason why they advanced. Unfortunately for them, they don't have that same advantage this time against Chicago. They'll have to find their road game at least once. United Center is a tough building to play in but at least it has not been an impenetrable fortress, Chicago did lose to Detroit in Game 2.. Still, LA must do better than it did in San Jose where it scored a single goal in each contest. Quick is good but he's not good enough to consistently make that work.

If Los Angeles is going to get a shot to be the first repeat champ since the late 1990s, it will definitely have to earn it. The Blackhawks, who you'll recall are recent winners of the Stanley Cup themselves, were without a doubt the strongest team in the league this season. With that 24-game points streak to begin the season they set up an expectation that this season would be great, that at worst they would head back to the Stanley Cup Final. Detroit gave them a scare but they appeared to wake up and reel off three straight, two in nail-biting fashion.

It's fair to say Chicago presents the most complete challenge LA has faced in the past two postseasons. The Blackhawks have balance and are, like LA usually is, very strong with the puck. They had the conference's best offense in the regular season, the NHL's best defense in the regular season and very good goaltending. The ingredients are there, up and down.

Really we are talking about a battle between two heavyweights and two different styles. At least as far as this postseason has played out for them, LA has been a team living a lot in the neutral zone, making entries tough for opponents while trying to use its big forecheck to set up offense. While I don't want to use the word finesse to describe Chicago, the Hawks don't like to play the same type of grinding game. Chicago scoots through the neutral zone and fires on net. Obviously both approaches have worked so far; it's going to be interesting to see which style wins out in this series.

If you were to try to pick a better Western Conference finals this season you'd be hard-pressed to find it. Chicago has high hopes and great expectations, but faces a formidable foe in LA, a team that presents a tough matchup. It should also present a great series to watch.

Chicago offense vs. Los Angeles Defense

Here we have the regular season's best offense in the Western Conference vs. one of the best defensive teams in either conference. When it comes to just this postseason, no team has been stingier than the Kings.

Chicago is loaded with skill players up and down the lineup and is a pretty good possession team to boot. When you can put a line out there that has both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane you're going to be OK. That doesn't even mention the guys like Patrick Sharp -- who has finally found his scoring touch in the postseason -- and Marian Hossa. It's an excellent collection of point producers with a good supporting cast.

While Chicago's scoring is down in the playoffs (averaging 2.75 goals per game vs. 3.10 in the regular season), it's not from a lack of offense. Much was made about Toews' lack of scoring against the Red Wings, but Chicago continued to generate offense and put shots on net; they just weren't going in. The Blackhawks are putting an average of 33.9 shots on goal per game, the most among any Western Conference team in the playoffs and are putting up nearly six shots on goal more per game than their opponents. If the puck is on your sticks more often than not, you're doing it right in terms of offense.

But against Los Angeles things tend to get a little more suffocating. The Kings have been charged by some as being boring this postseason because they have been doing a lot of their work in the neutral zone, clogging things up and playing a physical, grinding/heavy style. They have been allowing 29.4 shots against per game, not a ton but more than Chicago. However they aren't giving up a lot of quality attempts. That's partially the goal of the grinding approach; they focus on their own zone first. It's also partially due to Drew Doughty, who continues to grow as a defenseman and has been playing monster minutes in the playoffs, more than 27 per night.

Last season's Cup champs were a good defensive team but balanced. That balance isn't there this postseason; the Kings are a defense-first team the way they have played in the first two rounds, against two good possession teams (as the Kings normally are as well). Unfortunately for them Chicago is another very strong team with the puck, probably the strongest of the three teams the Kings have faced so far.

Los Angeles offense vs. Chicago defense

What took the Kings from a good team to a dominant team last postseason was an offense that was good enough to complement the defense. The Kings always seemed to have the puck and were firing away and scoring, something they didn't do in the regular season. They nearly kept up that pace in the regular season (averaging 2.73 goals per game) but it has disappeared again in these playoffs, particularly on the road.

Thankfully for them, the Kings' defense has been so stingy because the offense's two goals per game is the lowest of teams to reach the second round, let alone the third round. It's not really a matter of poor luck with the Kings, either. Their 24.8 shots per game are far and away the fewest among teams in the playoffs, Minnesota is next (against Chicago) with 27.8. That's strange and certainly something you don't expect with a team that has been consistenly outshooting opponents for two years. In the regular season teams only outshot the Kings on 15 occasions. It's already happened eight times in the playoffs. Especially with the line of Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown not tearing through teams like it did last postseason, this offense just isn't what it was (and thus what it's capable of being) right now.

Chicago has no such issues. The Blackhawks were the best defensive team in the league during the season in terms of goals against and they have been even better in the playoffs (behind only LA), allowing only 1.83 goals per game. Part of it is a function of their offense and how it is often in control of the puck but it's not as if Chicago has a bunch of slouches on the back line.

It is not the most physical group of defensemen you'll find around the league so they will be tested by the Kings with their strong forecheck in the zone. One thing the Blackhawks defensemen do well is get the puck and start it moving up ice pretty quickly. It helps the guys on the back when you have guys among the forwards who are not only good players in their own end but can make good decisions with the puck to move it up and out of the zone. Whichever team can win the battle between LA's forecheck and Chicago's ability to minimize it will have a big leg up.

Goaltending

The edge here going to Los Angeles is not an indictment on the man in Chicago's net. That's such a big and welcome change for the Blackhawks, who have been looking for that No. 1 goalie to lead them back to the promised land.

By no stretch of the imagination has Corey Crawford been a liability, or somebody the Blackhawks are just pulling along for the ride. Yes, the defense does a good job in front of him helping make life easier but he's been outstanding all season long, the postseason being no different. You simply can't complain about a goaltender with a .938 save percentage and 1.70 goals-against average.

The only problem with that -- and I use the word problem loosely -- is that Quick has been even better. His performance in the playoffs is bringing back the conversation about Quick being the best goalie in the world. It would seem the book on him is pretty simple: get the puck elevated because he sucks up anything on the ice level like a Hoover vacuum.

It's not an exaggeration to say that without Quick the Kings likely are not here. As mentioned, the Kings have been playing low-scoring hockey games so without the offense, he has been counted on even more. He's answered every time. Quick has been as good as a goalie can be, as good as he was last season when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP. It's hard to imagine much better numbers than Crawford in the playoffs but Quick has them with a 1.50 goals against average and .948 save percentage. It's crazy how good he has been, especially after a lackluster regular season.

Special Teams

Of course special teams are always a factor but this series doesn't have the look of one that will be won or lost depending on who is in the box. LA is not really exceptional or bad at either facet of special teams, a little above average on both. After a relatively slow start vs. San Jose, the Kings' penalty kill did show well for itself in the latter half of the series against a very potent power play. They had some really impressive kills that provided big boosts, a very aggressive approach to killing.

The power play has clicking at 20 percent this postseason and there were games in the last series where the power play saved their hides. They can put some pretty good units on the ice for their power play, too. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards have done well on the advantage.

Against Chicago, though, that power play might not be quite as effective. Of all the things the Blackhawks have been doing well, they have done none of it better than killing penalties. Opponents have had 41 attempts against Chicago's PK unit. They have scored one goal. The Hawks are a perfect 21 for 21 on home ice and are 19 for 20 killing on the road. While Minnesota doesn't pose a massive threat on the power play, Detroit had good success in the first round and was almost completely shut down by Chicago.

On the power play the Hawks are all right but you wouldn't call them world beaters despite the great collection of talent they can put out there. In the playoffs they're hitting on 16.2 percent of power plays. The movement has been there, they just haven't been finishing all that much. That said, their PP did get going some late against Detroit with three goals in the final three games.

Prediction

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